Sunrise over Mitteleuropa

At least the early work of the Secessionists was meant to provoke and cause outrage; an idea they were successful with. Ludwig Hevesi associated the architectural style of the Secession building, with its unusual oriental influences, with “the golden backdrop of medieval times”. Vienna’s citizens, however, mocked the building and called it “the Temple of the Three Frogs” or “The Tomb of Mahdi” or – even worse – “The Crematorium” and “The Mausoleum”. The dome was generally referred to as “the cabbage head”. Hermann Bahr spoke quite differently about the building in an article in October 1898:

[…] the building is the new house of the Secession and has been designed by the young architect Olbrich. On the 4th of November it is meant to become municipal. The same day will see the start of its first exhibition. I suspect that there will be a great outcry and the foolish people will rage. That is why I want to say the most important things right now, while I am calm and dispassionate. Polemics will come later.

After leaving the first room, we enter the building itself. Everything is functional here. There is no frivolous attempt to boast or to blind with pomp. The house of the Secession does not want to be a palace or a temple but rather a room that is able to arrange works of art to best effect possible. The artist did not ask himself, “How can I design this so that it looks the most impressive?” but rather “How can this serve its purpose, its new mission, our needs?” [….]

Joseph Maria Olbrich, Draft for the exhibition building of the Viennese Secession, perspective, 1897.
Pencil, charcoal, coloured pencil and opaque colour on light brown drawing board, 44.9 x 29.9 cm.
Library of Art, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin , Berlin. Photograph by Dietmar Katz.

Josef Hoffmann, who played an important role in the shaping of aesthetic perception and the study and understanding of aesthetics in the 20th century, also contributed to the success of the first exhibition. As a dedication to him, visitors of the second exhibition could read the following text in the catalogue:

“May the words of Hevesi, as they are written above our building, become true – Every era needs its art and all art needs its freedom” […].

The Viennese Secession differed in certain respects from the Jugendstil-movement. They used decorative elements that were directly derived from nature, like leaves, animals, or grapevine shoots. The floral elements often included three-dimensional adornments like snakes or salamanders. This association of arts was not only exclusive to painters as their membership was founded on the concept of holistic art. They were comprised of designers, architects, artisans, and painters who wanted to unite all aspects of life into one comprehensive artwork.

The sixth exhibition in 1900 was dedicated to Japanese art and Japonism as a European-born, Japanese-influenced branch of art. In essence, it was a time of awakening for all arts. For the 13th exhibition in 1902 – which 21 artists enriched with their contributions – Gustav Klimt created the Beethoven Frieze, an allegorical painting portraying man’s search for happiness, inspired by Beethoven’s last symphony.

The Beethoven Frieze at the 14th Secession Exhibition: Klinger, Beethoven.
Gustav Klimt. Photograph, 1902.

The 9th symphony in itself was a novelty in the history of music, as the movement required soloists and a mixed choir. Later, in 1985, this last movement – combined with Friedrich Schiller’s poem Ode to Joy – would be chosen as the hymn for the European Union. Max Klinger also contributed to the Beethoven-theme with his sculpture Beethoven. Both works of art have come to symbolise The Viennese Secession .

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1903 : Here lies in peace Ver Sacrum

The Viennese Secession soon had its own statutes but more importantly a mouth piece with the official magazine of the Vienna Secession Ver Sacrum (Latin for “sacred spring”), which was published from 1898 to 1903. It took its name possibly from either one of these two sources: Some art historians think that it was inspired by an old Roman ritual, dedicated to their gods, meant to celebrate the foundation of a new township while others assume that the name was borrowed from Ludwig Uhland’s poem Der Weihefrühling (The Sacred Spring). Artists from the Secession contributed to the magazine along with popular local writers and other foreign artists.

The magazine, under the directorship of Wilhelm List, had a print run of five years (1898-1903) and had a limited publication of 300 copies per issue. In the first two years the magazine was published monthly, then bimonthly in 1901. One of the most prolific contributors was Klimt, who regularly wrote articles for Ver Sacrum. The publication was highly regarded – from a literary and artistic point of view – and had a high influence on Austrian and foreign artists.

Hermann Bahr penned the most important principle of the Secession: “We want art that is not a slave to foreign influences but at the same time is neither afraid nor hateful of them.”

Koloman Moser, Poster design for the “First Grand Art Exhibition” of the Viennese Secession, 1897.
Watercolour, gouache, coloured pencil, metal colour on tracing linen, 78.5 x 60.5 cm.
Leopold Museum , Vienna.

Despite all the praise there were also problems with the magazine. One of the issues was confiscated by a district attorney because it “abrasively violated the sense of shame with its depiction of nudity and thus created public outrage”. Klimt responded to these charges that he did not want to deal with boorish people and that it was more important to him that there were people who liked the drawing. He was referring to his private patronage, his clients from the ranks of the Viennese upper class.

In the course of five years 70 issues were published, which had a purely didactic role and were often dedicated to one specific topic per issue. For example, one special issue was dedicated to Jan Toorop, whose symbolic picture language was a great influence on Klimt. Another complete issue was dedicated to Khnopff-reproductions while the November issue of 1899 was an essay written by Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren about the oeuvre of the Flemish painter Theo van Rysselberghe.

Ver Sacrum propagated the idea of holistic art, which stated that all art needs to form a synthesis and can thus be appreciated by everyone: the poor and the rich, the powerful and the powerless. The content varied between essays about art theory and practical, visual examples. Often the issues contained original prints. The magazine appeared roughly at the same time as another important magazine that was published beyond the Alps, in Munich, and was called Die Jugend (The Youth). The Munich magazine marked the beginning of the local Jugendstil-movement and was essentially the inspiration for their name. In 1903, Ver Sacrum and discontinued due to a lack of subscribers.

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The Viennese Secession: Art in the time of canons

Apart from Gustav Klimt and Franz Matsch, many other artists participated in the beginning of the movement: Wilhelm List, Carl Moll, Ernst Stöhr, Max Kurzweil, Koloman Moser, and Josef Engelhart. This core group essentially founded in 1897 the Vienna Secession after a coffee-house meeting. Later, the architects Josef Hoffmann, who was also one of the co-founders of the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna’s Workshops), and Josef Maria Olbrich joined the illustrious group as well. Gustav Klimt , barely aged 35, took up the presidency. Soon a motto was found as well: “Every era needs its own art and all art needs its freedom.”

Group portrait of the artists of the Viennese Secession before the opening of the 14th Exhibition: Klinger, Beethoven, 1902. Back row, left to right: Anton Nowak, Gustav Klimt (sitting), Adolf Boehm, Wilhelm List, Maximilian Kurzweil (with cap), Leopold Stolba, Rudolf Bacher; Front row, left to right: Koloman Moser (sitting), Maximilian Lemz (lying), Ernst Stöhr (with hat), Emil Orlik (sitting), Carl Moll (lying).
Photograph by Moriz Mähr, 1902.

Thus, program and mission statement for the movement were set for the forty members who were all already established artists. In practice, their motto could also have been “Art for everyone and for every stratum of society.” During this decade, Vienna was basically obsessed with aesthetics and eroticism. It was an era of happiness, craze and a flurry of intellectual activity. The Secessionists were searching for new artistic expressions, had developed their own ideal of beauty and wanted to steer their movement into a direction that did not require submission to political, economical or financial constraints; in essence, they wanted a “typically Austrian Jugendstil”.

As to satisfy the conditions of etiquette and formality, they drafted a letter of termination to the Genossenschaft der bildenden Künstler Wiens im Künstlerhaus:

The board of directors is probably aware that a group of artists within the organisation has been trying to make themselves and their artistic ideas heard for years. These ideas now culminate in the realisation of a necessity: the necessity to establish contact between the artistic scene in Vienna and the ever-progressing art scene outside of Austria. Furthermore exhibitions need to be freed of commercial interests and organised according to purely artistic standards, so that a pure and modern concept of art can be taught to the broader public. Finally, a higher understanding of art needs to be awakened in higher circles.

Klimt, Moll, and Hoffmann were responsible for the organisation of exhibitions until 1905. This function in the Secession naturally furthered Klimt’s reputation, which led to him gaining more influence at the Imperial court, with the government and his colleagues. The Secession was ultimately successful in finding wealthy patrons and securing subsidies for their fledgling association. They received commissions from museums, theatres, and other official institutions. However, first and foremost the founders of the movement had several specific objectives they wanted to accomplish: to help young artists exhibit their work; invite the best foreign artists to Vienna; publish a distinctive and original art magazine; and finally elevate the artistic standard in Vienna to an international level.

For that reason, four non-resident artists were invited into the Secession: Fernand Khnopff from Belgium, Max Klinger from Germany, the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler, and Jan Toorop from the Netherlands.

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[P2/2] An explosion of passionate emotions: From Mayerling to Sarajevo

As previously mentioned, the second half of the 19th century was characterised by a plethora of constructional activity in Vienna. In 1857, at the behest of Emperor Franz Joseph, the demolition of the medieval city wall that still surrounded the city centre was initiated. During this period, the Ringstraßenviertel was created: a thriving new district of magnificent buildings and beautiful parks, while the essence of regeneration provided Gustav Klimt and his partners with the opportunity to showcase their talent. The first commissions did not take long to follow, and they were asked to contribute artistically to the festivities on the occasion of the silver wedding of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth. Shortly after that, they painted a ceiling fresco for a spa in Karlsbad. More state commissions followed. A study of Klimt’s paintings of that time – like Fable (1883) or The Idyll (1884) – reveals that, although he was a talented and promising young artist, his art was rooted in the conventional, academic standards for allegorical and mythological themes.

Gustav Klimt , The Idyll, 1884. Oil on canvas, 50 x 74 cm. Wien Museum Karlplatz , Vienna.

The colours in The Idyll are not particularly elegant but still skilfully colour the fabrics of the central figure with her smooth hair. She would neither have been shocking nor inspiring in the 17th or 18th century. Her beauty is rather maternal and matronesque while her nakedness is more decorative than arousing.

Gustav Klimt , Fable, 1883. Oil on canvas, 85 x 117 cm. Wien Museum Karlplatz , Vienna.

In the past the pubic region was – if at all – stylised to a smooth, innocent “V”. Numerous paintings from early medieval times or the early Renaissance who dared to show or allude to male or female genitalia were later covered with absurd fig leaves.

By 1896, Klimt already began painting the human body in a more unconventional and individual manner. For example, there is an interesting discrepancy between the last study for Allegory of Sculpture and the fully realised painting: in the study, the wild and loose hair that would later characterise Klimt’s style is already visible and there are traces of a more detailed depiction of pubic hair. The woman is looking directly at the viewer and strikes a provocative pose, as if she was caught naked in her bedroom. The painting, on the contrary, shows a traditional figure again: her pose is classically sculpture-like, her hair is braided and the pubic hair is gone.

Gustav Klimt , Allegory of Sculpture, 1889. Pencil and watercolour, 44 x 30 cm.
Wien Museum Karlplatz , Vienna.

All the early commissions made Klimt a successful and popular artist. In 1892, Klimt’s father died, shortly followed by his brother Ernst. In that difficult time, the relationship between Klimt and his co-student Franz Matsch, with whom he and his brother Ernst had founded the Künstler-Compagnie, cooled off. These events deeply impacted Klimt and he began to forge new and more adventurous paths.

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[P1/2] An explosion of passionate emotions: From Mayerling to Sarajevo

The two decades between 1885 and 1918 were a turbulent time of social and cultural paradigm shifts for Vienna, capital of a multi-ethnic empire on the verge of losing the pomp and glory of the 19th century. However, the creation of The Viennese Secession and the Wiener Werkstätte (Viennese Workshops) marked a leap into the modern age, at least culturally.

In 1861, the local artists had already joined the Genossenenschaft der bildenden Künstler Wiens (Association of Fine Artists in Vienna) and found a home in the Künstlerhaus, a renaissance-style building designed by August Weber, that was situated directly at the main boulevard in Vienna. However, the building soon outgrew its initial conception and several additions had to be made: two wings in 1882 and a roof for the atrium in 1888. Nowadays the building houses several cultural venues, a cinema and theatre in the wings, as well as a modern Internet café. In the course of the 20th century it was on the verge of being demolished several times, but, nevertheless, survived and thrived and is today, thanks to a multitude of varying exhibitions, livelier than ever.

In the 19th century, the construction of the Künstlerhaus was just one of the many construction projects that were simultaneously commissioned and led to an economic upsurge in the city.

Künstlerhaus – Vienna

Due to the high influx of unemployed workers and farmers from Bohemia and Moravia, another urban expansion (the first one was initiated in 1850) became necessary. This made Vienna the fourth-largest city in Europe with 800.000 inhabitants after London, Paris and Berlin. In the course of ten years the number of inhabitants doubled until it reached 2.000.000 in 1910, making Vienna the fourth-largest city in the world after New York, London, and Paris. For that reason, the urban expansion in the 1890s not only incorporated smaller boroughs surrounding but also included the construction of new districts and the subterranean diversion of the Vienna River. Already in 1897, the first electrical tram line was made operational, a belated successor to the Viennese horse-powered tram which was ferrying people from between 1840 and 1841 – long before Germany or Switzerland would establish a similar transportation system.

All these construction projects required an additional workforce. This led to a huge influx of workers from the eastern realms of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who were given work in the brickworks as unskilled labourers or construction workers. Not all of the immigrants, of whom great percentages were Jews from Eastern-European countries, were able to find work in the city. Together with sweeping industrialisation, the situation of the working class worsened as more and more craftspeople sank into poverty and thus into a lower social stratum. In turn, the conditions and the rising pressure to compete over jobs led to social tensions between the local population and the newly arrived groups from the same country, as well as to problems within these groups.

Some of the immigrant women could find much sought-after work as cooks or as maidservants in the employ of upper-class households. Naturally, those women who were working as cooks brought the culinary influences from their home countries with them, which gave the Viennese cuisine a distinct Czech nuance – surely not to the detriment of the local cuisine, which was already excellent.

In sum, Vienna became a cosmopolitan city and attracted a multitude of artists from all genres. However, the era of the great Viennese classical music that had seen geniuses like Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Schubert, was drawing to an end. Especially the typically Viennese passion for the Waltz and the Opera, which was shaped by artists like Joseph Lanner, Johann Strauss I, Johann Strauss II, Oscar Strauss – not a relative of the famous Strauss family and almost but forgotten today – Karl Millöcker, Franz Lehar, Emmerich Kálmán, or Robert Stolz, was slowly fading.

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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: The clubfoot who loved promiscuous women

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec did not just capture life in his paintings, drawings and lithographs, but he also caught the life of a singular and unique Paris that did not exist before him and disappeared after him. During the third Republic, the new Paris imagined by Haussmann was already a reality with its boulevards, its department stores, commercial malls, stations, iron-framed markets and luxurious private hotels. The city was expanding further away from its centre invading the last resisting hills. Only the distinctive blocks of the village of Montmartre remained, where vineyards grew and where Auguste Renoir worked outdoors whilst his wife and children gathered snails in the poppy fields. New restaurants appeared one after the other, brothels, cabarets and concert-cafés.

In the 1860s and 1870s Maupassant, the Goncourt brothers, Daudet and Renoir would meet up at the rustic restaurant of the ‘Father Fournaise’, on the river banks, near Chatou. The art world would then meet up at the ‘Chat noir’, a cabaret founded in 1881. There one could see Hugo, Zola, Anatole France, Wagner, Gounod, Massenet. The first Parisian chansonniers suddenly blossomed before disappearing just as abruptly without a trace. Many were killing themselves drinking absinth. In fact, there is only one bright star in the Montmartre figurative art of the end of the nineteenth century: Toulouse-Lautrec.

Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa was born on November 24, 1864, in the south of France, in the family chateau of the Bosc in Albi. He descended from an ancient family: his ancestors had been on crusades and entered Jerusalem in the eleventh century. His parents, Count Alphonse and Countess Adèle, were cousins; the purpose of their marriage was to consolidate the Toulouse-Lautrec line that was weakening. The birth of their son Henri was a joy for the whole family, especially as he was the only male descendant. The father, grandfather and uncles of the artist painted well and Henri started drawing horses, dogs and birds at an early age. The only thing that worried his family was his health.

Aged fourteen he broke his thighbone falling in the sitting room of the chateau, fifteen months later, he fell in a gutter and broke his other leg. He remained a cripple. His legs stopped growing whilst his torso reached a normal size. As he grew up his nose grew big and his lips lost their shape giving him a speech impediment. He had to give up the idea of a normal life. He could only expect disgust and pity from young women. The only thing that he had left was his hands, which could do wonders.

Back in Paris, Toulouse-Lautrec entered the studio of the academic master Léon Bonnat and later of Professor Carmon, where he met Van Gogh. Toulouse-Lautrec’s appearance attracted attention upon him wherever he went. The first sessions in the studio with his mates were very difficult for him. He needed courage to struggle against rejection. Toulouse-Lautrec’s self caricatures were remarkable. His piercing eyes noticed not only outstanding details in others but also in himself. He painted himself sitting in front of his easel, drawing in a firm and assured line his profile with a big nose and protruding lips whilst a few light lines recalled the scattered hair on his head. He only felt free in the company of other rejected people, like himself – Montmartre was his real home.

Toulouse-Lautrec spent the summer 1887 at the chateau of Malromé that his mother had bought near Bordeaux. He painted a classical and very serious portrait of his mother with harmonious blue tones (Countess Adèle de Toulouse-Lautrec in the Living Room of the Malromé Château). He changed the letters of his name and signed ‘Treclau’. Perhaps he did not want to disgrace his family again, from whom he was becoming more and more distant.

Jane Avril Coming out of the Moulin Rouge, 1893. Oil and gouache on cardboard, 84.3 x 63.4 cm. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art , Hartford.

From then on Toulouse-Lautrec looked more and more often for models amongst old declining prostitutes; in human faces, he was mostly looking for the signs of adversity and despair, vice and debauchery. The Dihaus, a family of musicians belonged to his remote family. Toulouse-Lautrec enjoyed visiting them a lot: they knew Edgar Degas and many artists visited their house. Degas had always been his favorite out of all the painters of the time whom he appreciated and had learned something from. He even tried the themes of Parisian life that Degas painted. But the way he interpreted those subjects was completely different. Degas painted nudes with harmonious lines, catching a fleeting moment or the outline’s gracious curve. Toulouse-Lautrec’s hard lines underlined dry hands mercilessly, sticking out shoulder blades or a loose knot in thin hair.

Amongst Impressionist subjects there is a famous painting by Renoir called the Dance at the Moulin de la Galette (1876), an elegant symphony of colorful glittering lights. Toulouse-Lautrec painted his Moulin de la Galette in 1889 (At the Moulin de la Galette). That painting was the first of a series of compositions that turned out to be a real chronicle of ‘joyous’ Montmartre.

At the Moulin de la Galette, 1889. Oil on canvas, 88.5 x 101.3 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago , Chicago.

Near the avenue de Clichy, the wings of a red mill had started to turn, like a signal: it was the beginning of the famous cabaret. There one could see people of the Parisian high society as well as characters from the very bottom. Louise Weber, a young Alsatian, danced quadrilles with her partner, a wine merchant from the Coquillère street. His incredible suppleness was the reason he was nicknamed the boneless Valentin; as for Louise, she received the nickname ‘La Goulue’ [the Greedy] because of her insatiable appetite. Toulouse-Lautrec untiringly painted the dancer who was the central character of his composition.

Drawing was the major part of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work. However, in 1891, he was inspired by an order from the owners of the Moulin Rouge, who asked Toulouse-Lautrec to design the poster for the opening of the cabaret season. He drew La Goulue and the outline of Boneless Valentin over a crowded background as they had both become the symbols of the Moulin Rouge. The poster was readable from far away; it was provocative and striking. (La Goulue au Moulin Rouge). His poster had become a collector’s dream as soon as the day after it was released in the streets of Paris. For the artist himself, it was the revelation of a new form of art, which he immediately favored.

Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, 1891. Colour lithograph, 191 x 120 cm. Private collection.

Toulouse-Lautrec established poster drawing as a graphic art. In that limited genre, Toulouse-Lautrec managed to express his admiration for the dancer Jane Avril. He drew her many times. His broken lines conveyed the sudden movements in her dancing and her fragile outline (Jane Avril Dancing). The making of a poster was preceded by a vast number of drawings. At the Folies-Bergères, he drew the American dancer Loïe Fuller fluttering about the stage with her light, vaporous dresses. Toulouse-Lautrec’s drawings and paintings nourished his posters. The opposite was also true, his posters brought laconism and finesse to his painting style.

However, Toulouse-Lautrec’s Montmartre had changed. Its cabarets and concert-cafés were not going to last. They disappeared or turned into something else one after the other. He did lots in painting and graphics, throwing himself passionately into theatre for which he created paintings and posters, but it was getting harder and harder for him to work. His mother and friends tried to save him from alcoholism but it was beyond his power to give up. In 1899, he had to stay in a clinic for the insane for a while. He tried to get a taste for life back again through work for a little while, when he came out of hospital, but he finally died aged thirty-seven at Chateau Malromé, on September 9, 1901.

Toulouse-Lautrec had started to exhibit his works very early on. The public and most critics were choked by its indecency. His paintings entered museums quietly, as if they were on a black list. Several works by Toulouse-Lautrec were thus lost to French museums. Yet, without his paintings and prints, the art of the Post-Impressionist era would not be as rich. Toulouse-Lautrec was responsible for an immense contribution to the formation of the decorative style called Art Nouveau, which became the symbol of the link between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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[3/3]Paul Gauguin: In the footsteps of Fletcher Christian (caption of the Bounty)

At the autumn of 1891, Gauguin decided to leave the civilized city of Papeete for the village of Mataiea where aborigines were living a natural life. He painted the sand on a shore, immense trees and mountains. He caught the effects of the blazing sun revealed by the sculpted volume of the tree. It mattered to him to give each painting a title in Tahitian. (Fatata te Mouà (At the Foot of a Mountain).

Paul Gauguin 11
Fatata te Mouà (At the Foot of a Mountain), 1892. Oil on canvas, 68 x 92 cm.
The State Hermitage Museum , St Petersburg.

He delineated flats of bright colors patches with contours. Little figures of Tahitian women – whom Gauguin never stopped drawing pictures of doing their activities – began to appear in the landscape. (Matamoea (Landscape with Peacocks).

Paul Gauguin 12
Matamoe (Landscape with Peacocks), 1892. Oil on canvas, 115 x 86 cm.
The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts , Moscow.

Little by little, Gauguin got used to his new environment. He admired young Tahitian women, their sturdy beauty and their spontaneity. But Gauguin kept in mind everything that he had seen at the Louvre and during his travels around the world. The real market scene gets transformed into a stylized frieze recalling the memory of friezes in ancient Greece, Egyptian bas relief and Gauguin’s own Breton paintings (Ta Matete’ (The Market)).

The painter’s wife was called Tehura. She knew all the customs of aboriginal life, told Gauguin the local legends and initiated him to Tahitian gods. Gauguin painted a Tahitian Madonna wrapped in a red pareo with a Christian aureole round her head. (La orana Maria (Ave Maria).

paul gauguin 14
La Orana Maria (Hail Mary), 1891. Oil on canvas, 113.7 x 87.6 cm.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

One particular painting sums up this mature style: Tahitian Pastorals. In this painting a Tahitian woman plays the vivo whilst another listens to it motionlessly. Her blind look, the ritual vase and the strange orange dog in the foreground constitute a network of mysterious symbols. The exotic world here is made of patches of colors – red, green, pink, black, yellow – delineated with contours.

Paul Gauguin 13
Tahitian Pastorals, 1892. Oil on canvas, 87.5 x 113.7 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

On June 4, 1893, Gauguin left to return to France. The period before his departure was difficult. Gauguin became seriously ill; he lacked money to buy canvases but the state that he was in didn’t allow him to work. The distant tropical islands now appeared to him like a paradise. In Paris, he painted something strange that he called Nave Nave moe which meant ‘Delicious mystery’ according to him but ‘Sweet dreams’ would be a more accurate translation. Nowadays that painting is known by the name that it received later, Delectable Waters. On June 28, 1895, he said goodbye to his friends and got on the train for Marseille where he embarked for Oceania again.

Gauguin arrived in Papeete on September 9, 1895. He had brought with him two landscapes that he had painted in Brittany (Breton Village under the Snow). Many things had changed in Tahiti: civilization had brought its sad fruit. The colonial authorities could not maintain order and the army could turn up on the islands at any time. Gauguin was annoyed by everything from political speeches to electric lighting. He started to envisage going further to Saint- Dominique in the Marquisas archipelago where he had planned to live a quiet life cheaply, but things were not that simple. Gauguin had brought back a range of infections from Europe.

paul gauguin 15
Breton Village under the Snow, 1894. Oil on canvas, 62 x 87 cm. Musée d’Orsay , Paris.

He had no money left at all. He was in total despair. In April 1897, he got the news of his beloved daughter’s death, Aline, at twenty. He hardly had any energy left to paint. Nevertheless he carried out some remarkable works. In 1896, he painted Te arii vahine (The King’s Wife). It shows a beautiful Tahitian woman of which Pahura is likely to have been the model; she is represented like Giorgione’s Venus or Manet’s Olympia. And the artist was right to be proud: his Tahitian Venus/ Olympia can stand aside its classical predecessors.

Suffering and adversity forced Gauguin to try and interpret the world in a philosophical way. Several drawings and painted studies were the basis for a large painting, summing up, his whole life in a way: Where do we come from? Where are we? Where are we going?

paul gauguin 8
Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897-1898.
Oil on canvas, 139.1 x 374.6 cm. Museum of Fine Arts , Boston.

Painting was Gauguin’s only language and one that was unconventional. On several occasions, he managed to get some work doing drawings for the civil service. Misfortune continued to strike him: he could not paint anymore, his house was destroyed, rats ate his drawings and, being ill, he did not manage to send his paintings on time for the World’s Fair of 1900. At last on September 10, 1901, he managed to embark on a ship for the Marquesas Islands.

He arrived on Hiva Oa Island and settled in Atuana with a new woman, but life was no easier there. Gauguin was still as sick as before. Despite all these hardships, Gauguin carried out many paintings during the last years of his life. There are paintings of a particularly tragic tone amongst the scenes of local life that he painted in Tahiti and Hiva Oa. In 1896, Pahura gave birth to a girl who lived for ten days only. That was probably the trigger for the painting Baby (Nativity).

paul gauguin 16
Baby (Nativity of Tahitian Christ), 1896. Oil on canvas, 66 x 75 cm. The State Hermitage Museum , St Petersburg.

An ugly Tahitian woman with a dead child and the green Angel of Death are represented with a traditional Christian nativity scene in the background. Those gloomy paintings amplified Gauguin’s exceptionally dark palette. Because he did not have the canvases that he needed, he painted on burlap, often with nothing under it hence the colors were absorbed by the material and the painting was irreversibly darkened.

Gauguin’s last house in Atuana, built in 1902, showed joy in life in its entire decor. Gauguin called it the Maison du jouir (House of enjoyment). That name was represented on a horizontal panel with naked female figures along both edges. There were sculptures everywhere in that house, and no reminder of Christian art; these sculptures were intensively primitive. The bedroom’s entrance is trimmed with wooden panels bearing Gauguin’s favorite watchwords: Soyez mystérieuses (Be mysterious) and Soyez amoureuses et vous serez heureuses (Be in love and you will be happy). These basreliefs are some of only a small number of surviving artifacts from the last period of his life. Gauguin died on May 8, 1903. He was buried on a hill near.

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